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Debating how to respond on campus

Oded Naaman, an Israeli soldier who served in the territories, leads a tour of the controversial Breaking the Silence exhibit at the Harvard University Hillel. (Jason Schnier)

Oded Naaman, an Israeli soldier who served in the territories, leads a tour of the controversial Breaking the Silence exhibit at the Harvard University Hillel. (Jason Schnier)

NEW YORK (JTA) – At the opening session of its second summit on the university and the Jewish community, Hillel will provide a high-visibility opportunity for the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine to address leaders of the Jewish community.

UC Irvine is considered one of the more incendiary campuses in the country when it comes to Israel, a bastion of extreme pro-Palestinian agitation that has led some Jewish students to fear for their physical safety and prompted two separate investigations, including one by the federal government, into allegations of anti-Semitic activity.

The invitation to the school’s chancellor, Michael Drake, to the summit in Washington this week has prompted howls of protests from certain Jewish quarters and crystallized a deep disagreement within the pro-Israel community over how best to respond to anti-Israel sentiment on university campuses.

His appearance also has raised challenging questions of how to balance freedom of speech with an atmosphere of tolerance toward opposing, and often passionately expressed, political views.

“There’s an instinct that they should point fingers, shrei gevalt and attack,” said Ken Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s director on anti-Semitism and extremism, referring to the tactics of some Jewish groups.

“Strategically, when somebody in the university is perceived as being under attack from outside, it rallies the university to protect claims of academic freedom rather than to target the bigotry involved.”

In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights about the situation at UC Irvine. ZOA President Morton Klein said that meeting with Drake privately is one thing, but giving him a public podium sends the wrong message.

“By giving him a podium to give a speech, that only sends a message to him and to others that we are reasonably comfortable with the actions he’s taken to fight anti-Semitism and Israel bashing on campus when in fact he has said virtually nothing to give comfort to the Jewish students on campus,” Klein told JTA.

With its three-day summit “Imagining a More Civil Society” beginning Monday and its invitation to Drake, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has signaled its preference for dialogue and engagement as the preferred strategies for addressing the hostility toward the Jewish state that pervades many campuses.

Hillel’s president, Wayne Firestone, defended the Drake invitation, arguing that “a more constructive approach” would be to engage the UC Irvine chancellor.

“Hillel has found that the best way to advance the causes of Israel and the Jewish people is having relationships with all the university presidents and administrations so we can talk to them on issues of concerns to us,” Firestone told JTA.

“Chancellor Drake is a member of an administration where there are significant issues that we have. We have to talk to someone on that campus about those issues. We have to build relations and build understandings of what our concerns are.”

Drake could not be reached for comment.

In a letter sent March 20 to Firestone, 41 current and former students objected to Drake’s appearance at the conference. Drake is slated to appear on the opening day at a session titled “Fostering a More Civil Society.”

The students say Drake has been unresponsive to claims by Jewish students at UC Irvine that they have been subjected to a pattern of anti-Semitic threats and rhetoric.

“Jewish students at UCI have been subjected to hateful anti-Semitic programs and speakers on a regular basis, and yet Chancellor Drake and his administration have never once condemned any of it,” the letter said. “In fact, we understand that, according to Chancellor Drake, anti-Semitism is not even a problem on his campus. In light of his conduct, we believe that Chancellor Drake has not earned the right to be a speaker at a Hillel event focusing on how to create an environment that is civil, respectful and tolerant.”

The students met March 21 with Firestone to air their concerns.

Though UC Irvine has garnered significant media attention over the past few years, the debate over how best to respond to Israel’s critics in academia has played out on several campuses across the United States.

At Harvard University this month, the local Hillel chapter’s decision to host an exhibition of photographs and testimony by Israeli soldiers who served in the Palestinian territories drew a scathing condemnation from the ZOA, which accused the chapter of encouraging anti-Semitic hate and bigotry.

Hillel’s director in Cambridge, Mass., responded in a letter to Klein. According to a copy posted on the Web site Jewschool, Bernie Steinberg asserted that the absence of widespread hostility toward Israel at Harvard was due to a Hillel strategy of working collaboratively with other campus groups rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame when flash points arise.

Steinberg also noted that the ZOA news release on the issue had led Jewish students to receive hate mail.

“Truth from a skyscraper in New York City looks different than on the ground of a campus in Cambridge,” Steinberg wrote. “Every campus and every Hillel has its own unique culture.”

ZOA has clashed with Hillel before over Breaking the Silence, the group that organized the Harvard exhibition.

In 2006, ZOA sought to have the Union for Progressive Zionists ousted from a 32-member coalition of pro-Israel groups founded and supported by Hillel because of its endorsement of Breaking the Silence. The coalition’s eight-member steering committee unanimously voted to keep the progressive group in.

Proponents of engagement say the strategy has yielded significant results, even at campuses as challenging as UC Irvine. A memorial to the students murdered earlier this month at a Jerusalem yeshiva was held on the Irvine campus without incident, and campus officials and uniformed police now routinely monitor potentially provocative events, according to the local Hillel director.

They also point to Columbia University, another campus of longstanding concern to pro-Israel activists, particularly because of some controversial faculty members who teach Middle East studies. Columbia President Lee Bollinger was the lead signatory to an advertisement in The New York Times opposing last year’s proposed British academic boycott of Israel.

And while Bollinger defended Columbia’s invitation to Mahmoud Ahdmadinejad to speak on the New York campus in September, he nevertheless delivered harsh remarks about the Iranian president in his introduction.

Jeffrey Rips, the executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, which includes UC Irvine, said that after Muslim students organized two events last month under the heading “From Auschwitz to Gaza,” Drake called Hillel and the student pro-Israel group to check in.

“Does that mean anything? Does that change anything?” Rips said. “It sure as hell makes students feel better. And that never happened before.”

But some students, while acknowledging that the atmosphere at UC Irvine may have improved somewhat since the height of Jewish-Muslim tensions in 2003-04, still slam Hillel’s attitude, saying it amounts to the singing of “Kumbaya” in the face of near-violent anti-Semitic provocation.

Students have complained that Muslim students have thrown rocks at them and campus displays supportive of Israel or commemorating the Holocaust have been defaced or torn down.

In one case, a Jewish student of Egyptian descent said he was surrounded by 10 Muslim students who used profanity and threatened to kill him.

Hillel initiated a task force to investigate the complaints at UC Irvine, but subsequently withdrew and refused to endorse its findings. The task force issued a harsh appraisal of the situation on campus, even recommending that pro-Israel students consider enrolling elsewhere.

The federal investigation, in response to the ZOA complaint to the Department of Education, reached the opposite conclusion, finding “insufficient evidence” to support the allegation that the university had failed to respond adequately to student complaints of harassment.

But the debate goes on.

“The national Hillel for many years has wanted to deny the extent or seriousness of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on campus,” said Gary Tobin, the co-author of a 2005 volume on anti-Israel sentiment on campuses. “In that way they are not unlike the universities in which they sit.”

Firestone rejected that claim, asserting that conflating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment was “mixing apples and oranges.”

He also rejected Tobin’s assertion that American colleges tolerate extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric that would never be tolerated were it directed at other religious and ethnic minorities.

“I accept that there is a modicum of anti-Israelism that is generated both from the media and from certain professors from certain Mideast studies programs that is so biased and over the top that it creates a false sense of normalcy in terms of what is acceptable and not acceptable,” Firestone said.

Firestone was quick to add, however, that public expressions of Jewish pride are far more prevalent today than they were in the past.

“I am certain that reading the ADL statistics over years that the American campus is among the most tolerant places in American society as it relates to anti-Semitism,” he said. “I see more pro-Semitism on American campuses than I see anywhere else.”

Drake has refused to make any statements beyond generic condemnations of anti-Semitism. In May he told a group of several hundred at an Irvine synagogue that he could not respond to every offensive remark made on campus.

“We have 1,000 guest speakers on campus every year,” Drake said, according to a report in the Orange Country Register. “Could I evaluate them and say this one is anti-Semitic? I could not. What I could say is that as a person and a campus, we abhor hate speech, period.”

Hillel would not comment on Drake’s position but a spokesman, Jeff Rubin, did say that generally the group wants to see university administrators take a public position against specific acts of hate speech.

“When there are specific, provable acts of anti-Semitism that occur on campus, of course we would like a university president to speak out against them,” Rubin said. “Just as they would speak out against any hate crime that occurs on campus.”

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